Writer: мария страшилова
When I came to Dublin, one thing really fascinated me about its theatre: all of the plays I saw were focused on current sociopolitical issues. I loved it because in Bulgaria, where I am from, theatre may be visually challenging, but it is otherwise fairly conservative; we almost never dare to criticize our current state of affairs on the stage. Remarkably, this is often considered to be “low art” or “bad taste”. Instead of tackling specific issues, we talk in abstract terms. I do not understand this.
Bulgaria is not a country short of sociopolitical controversy. There’s no working judicial system, the health system is currently collapsing and it is, arguably, the most corrupt state in the EU, but theatre makers avoid interrogating these major issues. The young theatre maker trained in Bulgaria risks continuing in this tradition. However, my time at Trinity has made me realize that, as a director, I am interested in theatre that seeks to provoke social change.
The piece that I am working on at the moment explores the violence faced by women in Bulgaria through the medium of verbatim theatre. I am working with three actresses that have just graduated from the Bulgarian Theatre Academy and want to participate in socially relevant plays. Together, we are exploring the limitations of Bulgaria’s domestic abuse laws by contacting NGOs that are supporting or sheltering women who have been, or are currently being, chased by their abusers. Through these organizations, we have been able to meet with women that want to share their stories and that are happy for us to record our conversations. Like this, we are able to stay as true as possible to the words they use and the way they talk.
“Sharing and publicizing her story will at least raise awareness and potentially provoke social change.”
In a way, listening and engaging with these survivors means that we have become part of their stories; they really trust us and it is a huge responsibility. One of the women we interviewed is currently suing her abuser, and she invited us to the second court of appeal because she believed it would help us see his side as well. She hopes that even if the man is exonerated by our notoriously corrupt system, sharing and publicizing her story will at least raise awareness and potentially provoke social change. We want to hear as many peoples’ stories as possible, but because I am in Ireland right now it will probably take us at least a year. But the idea is to take these women’s words and use them to shape and devise our show.
We don’t want to necessarily portray physical abuse literally. For example, one of the women has shared that she feels like she’s a fly locked in a jar, while her abuser is roaming free around her. She has muted him in her head and sometimes hears his voice as an echo coming from the other side of the glass. This makes for a powerful image, arguably more powerful than a literal depiction and truer to the way she feels.
You might ask: why this subject? Why tackle domestic violence and sexual assault? When I came back home to Sofia during the pandemic, I felt a certain cultural shock. During the pandemic, so many women around me were discussing their old sexual experiences, the good, the bad, the traumatic. I heard of women being chased, being literally kicked on the ground, being manipulated into thinking that they weren’t worth anything, even having a knife at their throats.
“There are no official statistics, there’s no register for the abusers and there are only between one and three free spaces in every emergency center where women can seek asylum.”
According to a worldwide survey, every third Bulgarian woman has been a victim of domestic abuse. Domestic violence was only criminalized in Bulgaria in 2009, and even then it is only heavily penalized when one perpetrator has been reported three times in a row within the frame of six months. There are no official statistics, there is no register for the abusers and there are only between one and three free spaces in every emergency centre where women can seek asylum. Victims often refuse to report the cases, either because the law hardly protects them or because they don’t actually have a place to go to, especially when they have kids.
In 2019, 33 women were killed by their partners – but we only know this because some citizens organizations took the time to tally the deaths listed in police reports and newspaper headlines. One of the cases we are working with right now involves a woman whose abuser is a prosecutor in a smaller city. She has a video of him beating her and jumping over her in front of the city’s court. Despite this, he walked free and, critically, the case had very little media attention. Indeed, cases like these rarely enter into public discourse. Bulgaria’s women and their stories are being actively silenced.
And so, our project aims to raise awareness on violence against women in this country. I want to force the audience to engage with the problem, because otherwise we will continue ignoring it. I want them to think about the way in which the women around them who have been abused haven’t really talked much about it. I want women who are being abused to feel encouraged to speak out and to know that this is not normal. But above all I want these women to know that there is a way out.
“These women that have survived physical and emotional abuse are strong, independent people whose narratives and lives transcend their trauma.”
You can build your life from scratch, you can gain confidence and independence, and once you do nothing can cut your wings again. Yes, women are abused and often presented as victims, but we know very little about how they continue their lives. So this will be the focus of the second part of our piece. Because these women that have survived physical and emotional abuse are strong, independent people whose narratives and lives transcend their trauma.
I also wonder, turning my attention back to the stories I’ve heard here, from my western European friends, what this play would look like in “the developed West”, in a place like Ireland, in an institution like Trinity.